Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Paugussett Reroute at Birchbank/Indian Well Border

Reroute location at "Burritt's Rocks"
Our latest reroute of the Paugussett Trail consists of an 800-ft section that straddles the borderland between Indian Well State Park and Birchbank Mountain. Old deeds referred to this area as "Burritts Rocks." Mr. Burritt had a lot of rocks. This is near the top of the insanely steep river bank above Indian Well Road where southbound cars have to pull over so that northbound cars can pass, there are telephone poles in the road, and every so often boulders tumble down the hill and land on the pavement. Just below the trail there are giant slabs of rock jutting out of the slope at odd angles, twenty or thirty feet across, with crevices or voids a person could fall into that can be over ten feet deep.  It's very tough terrain.

Abandoned route is a brown dashed line
The Paugussett Trail has traveled just above that mess for many years. When houses were built at the top of the hill along Hickory Lane, the old trail had nowhere to go, and as a result hikers following the blue dots walked close to several homes. Many were worried that they might be trespassing. And over the past few years, with GPS and GIS mapping, it became apparent that part of the trail was actually on private property. This was a surprise, since there was yellow paint on trees marking the northern border of Indian Well all the way up the slope to the trail. Whoever marked that border went too far up the hill.

Existing route: The trail was overlooked by houses and recent clearing

Further down the valley, away from the houses.

Connecticut Blue Trails do often cross over private property, but it's not ideal, and over the past few years we've had massive clearing along the trail (some of it extending into state land), creating an eyesore. And this year we had bowhunting just a few feet from the trail. Bowhunting really isn't a big deal along trails, except that this was the only spot where bowhunting was allowed along the trail, so hikers would not be prepared for it and dress in bright colors.

So, was a reroute possible? It seemed unlikely at first. The reason the trail veered onto private property here was the presence of a broad valley going down the slope. The existing trail was following the contours, staying nice and level, and easily crossing a small stream we've been calling "Border Brook." In order to follow the property line, the trail would need to go down the hill through rough terrain into the valley, cross the brook, then climb back out of the valley. 
The reroute. Not to scale and north is to the right.
(click photo to enlarge)

Scouting for this reroute was like being a rat in a maze. The first challenge was finding an acceptable crossing of Border Brook, because the stream was much larger down the hill, with steep banks in places, and lots of rounded mossy boulders. But one good crossing point was found with lots of big flat rocks, and a bright orange survey flag was tied to a tree. This was a lovely spot. No houses. Even with a bad GPS signal, this crossing was clearly on City property. Heading south from this point, the land was pretty level, and again, no houses. There was one tricky spot with low boulders.  Skipped over that and paralleled the property line south towards a steepening hillside. Up above, the blue blazes of the existing trail were visible, but the drop-off screened the trail from the houses above. Nice. Ahead was a lot of rock. Boulders and probably ledge. There did seem to be one possibly plausible way up. More orange survey tape was tied to a tree. Maybe it would work, maybe not. Depended on kind of rock what was below the soil. You don't really know until you start digging. 

A wall of boulders stood in the way

Then it was back to the brook to scout a route north along the property line, only to discover a giant boulder field blocking the way. There did not seem to be a way through it. It was disheartening. Returned a few days later to take another look at the boulder field, examining the ground more closely near a couple of massive oak trees. Large trees can indicate more soil and less rock below. Fallen tree tops obscured the rocks, so those were cleared out to reveal a passage through the boulder field. Yes! More orange survey tape was tied to the trees. The rest of the routing was easier, just connecting the dots. It was flagged and partly cleared. 

Digging out the trail up the Hump, the hardest part
It being January, that would seem to be the end of it for the season, but we had a freak warm spell for a week with temps getting over 60°, and the ground thawed out. Digging started on the rock hump at the south end, because this was the most difficult section with the greatest unknowns. The tread needed to be dug into the side of the hillside, but there was rock underneath. Small rocks? Boulders? Ledge? Hard to say until you start digging. In fact there were two false starts, where the route had to be abandoned after digging revealed bedrock at a hopeless angle. Fortunately, another way was found each time. Phew. 

"BEFORE: Southern reroute terminus looking north
(top of the Hump - old trail heads to the left)

"AFTER": Southern reroute terminus looking north

At one spot near the bottom of the hump, newly exposed bedrock began seeping water across the tread, which by the next day had turned the new tread into a treacherous morass. Directly up the hill, the existing Paugussett Trail also was a messy mudhole that a passing trail runner mentioned. It was the same bedrock. One big long seep. This was a serious problem. How does the trail get past that seeping ledge? Good thing trail conditions were at their worst and the problem was revealed immediately. 

Getting down off  "the hump" was tricky with a seep
The next day that tread was shifted over several feet (lots more digging) in hopes of better conditions. This would make the trail steeper, but hopefully avoid the seep. But the seeping bedrock was hit once again. This time it was better, though, because the bedrock was stepped horizontally and vertically, making it less hazardous. A drainage channel was created by digging out at the base of the bedrock and placing a thin flat stone vertically against it, then installing two stone steps. Hopefully the water would drain into the void behind the steps and not out onto the tread. So far, so good. 

Passage cleared through the boulder field
Once the trail tread was roughed in along the hump, the rest was easier. There was still a lot of digging into the side of the hill, but the entire project now seemed more realistic. The hump had been solved. The rest was just a lot of digging and moving rocks, still taking advantage of the unfrozen ground. By the time the deep freeze had returned, the trail tread was good enough to open up the new section. It does still need some tread work, but that can wait until the spring. This section of trail has more up and down than the old route, but hopefully the improved views will make up for that. Since the tread will suffer from New Trail Syndrome for awhile, and a few more sections need to be dug in, the old section remains open for those who might prefer it. 

Middle of the new section, away from the houses
A final note on the property line between Indian Well and Birchbank. No one knows where this line is. The City Engineering Department never entered a property line into their master CAD maps for this reason, which in turn has created inaccuracies in the GIS mapping systems, which show Birchbank and Indian Well as one giant property owned by the City of Shelton. The filed land deeds were searched for the properties on both sides of this line, but it was little help. Going back to the 1800's, the deeds simply referred to neighboring properties without any other descriptions, not even a reference to a pile or rocks or a chestnut tree. For example, the 1927 deed for the purchase of Indian Well from the Ousatonic Water Company described the line this way: "thence running northwesterly along said land to land of John H. Hill and Bertha Wakelee Rogers; thence running northeasterly along said land to the northeasterly corner thereof."  John Hill and Bertha Rogers owned the southern part of what is now Birchbank Mtn. Deeds for their property, in turn,  just referenced the owners to their south. The only helpful deed was one from 1889 when the Housatonic Railroad Company purchased a 15-ft wide strip of land from what is now Birchbank Mtn. That 15-foot notch in the line is still there and should mark one end of the line. Meanwhile, the state has been contacted but so far has not been able to shed any light on the subject. We do know that the line is close to what we call "Border Brook." Which is good enough for trail work.

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